Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Inside Out

Back in December we started to put more of our effort into getting the "business" side of Whizbang into place. We began to capture the costs involved in getting the first game completed and started estimating our overall time spent on each step of the process of getting a custom pinball machine not only finished, but marketed and hopefully sold to a happy customer. And then more happy customers, and so on, and so on. Of course, it's now February and we're still capturing data but we now have a better idea of what it's going to take to get Whoa Nellie Big Juicy Melons grown, ripened, hand-picked, marketed, packed, and shipped. But let's get back to the fun stuff!

Near the end of December we invited Mark Weyna out to take a look at the project and see if he could lend assistance by removing the main "bottom" board (the Brains of the game) inside the cabinet and work on getting it cleaned up and "shopped" so it would be clean and working once we put it back in the game. Mark worked with us at Williams and Midway in the late '90's in the role of assistant designer, and later Game Designer, on games like Scared Stiff, Indy 500, and others. Mark was instrumental in a small but important mechanical detail on Scared Stiff - the small flap on the ramp that accepts the ball (like butter) from the Spider Hole "up-kicker" under the playfield. He also convinced us that reprising the "Dude-O-Meter" from Dr. Dude and renaming and repurposing it to the "Stiff-O-Meter" was a good thing for the game. From L to R: Greg, Mark, Dennis, unidentified woman, Mike Boon

Mark also has a great collection of EM pinball games from the '50's and '60's and collects some really great antique coin-operated equipment like music boxes, slot machines, nickelodeons, and other unique novelty games. With all this electro-mechanical equipment in his possession he's a great resource for EM restoration and repair. He's also a motorsport enthusiast and likes to drive antique sports cars so he knows quite a bit about how to keep things running...or get them started. Mark took a look at the main board in Dennis' shop and did a quick evaluation of what it might need. He then took it back to his shop to give it the TLC that it needed. He checked for loose wire connections and bad or cold solder joints. He cleaned each part and made adjustments to leaf switches. He found the more he cleaned or moved stuff around the more he had to repair. It's been 53 years since this game first rolled off the assembly line so, just like us, things start to dry up, decay, or get a bit frazzled over a lifetime of use and abuse. The focus of a surgeon. Mark also stripped off all of the components from the board and even took the time to not only clean the original plywood panel as much as possible, without removing the original ink-stamped markings for the fuse values, but also clear coated it to add that extra bit of lustre. "I was taking a more 'conservation' approach, but now that I see it sitting in the cabinet, I may want to take it apart again and just sand the wood clean and re-coat to better match the over the top polishing Dennis has done on the rest of the interior cabinet parts." Mark also added a new line cord to bring it into this century. During that same week, Ken Walker had mentioned to us that a group of pinball enthusiasts from the Chicago area were going to meet for an end-of-year get-together at a place called Brixie's in Brookfield, Illinois. (An aside for Beer lovers: this is a great place with a huge variety of microbrews on tap.) We thought it would be a good opportunity for Mark and Ken to meet each other, since both would be working on the guts of Whoa Nellie, so we all met up and had a great time meeting new people and talking pinball. (I also played one game of CSI that was set up for Tournament Only with shorty flippers for a buck a play - rediculous!) We also set up a follow-up meeting back at the studio in mid-January to hopefully get the other two Continental Cafe games up and running.

On January 16th Mark brought the finished board back to the studio. Before this, Dennis had thought about painting the inside of the cabinet to give it that extra Whizbang quality. He asked me to find a suitable "melon" color at the Home Depot paint department since I'm the "artist". I walked into HD and in less than 30 seconds found a swatch that seemed appropriate...aptly named "Cantaloupe"...that was easy! So by the time we got together on the 16th, we had a juicy cantaloupe color painted inside the main cabinet and backbox. Of course we thought about 7 more cool things we could do with the inside of the cabinet but we thought it better to put our combined energies where most people would see it. And Mark's "shopped" bottom board looks very nice inside the painted cantaloupe cabinet. Ken asked if it would be ok to bring a friend to the studio, another pinball enthusiast, Chris Edler from the St. Louis area, who was in town for a monthly pinball players gathering in the suburbs of Chicago. Both Ken and Chris have worked as airplane mechanics so to have two skilled mechanics in one room, along with both Ken and Mark's expertise in the mechanical coin-op world, we felt that these aging Continental Cafe's were in good hands. And perhaps by the end of the day the games would not only be running, but flying as well. Mark and Ken plugged in the two CC games and started troubleshooting to find out any and all problems that might have plagued the games during the later years of operation. "When Ken and I dug into the other games it was very much the normal stuff to fix on games that have been sitting for a long time...freeing slow or stuck wiper assemblies so the games would try and reset, then look for stuck/bent switches to stop the 'coil-cooking lockup'. Once things are pretty much working it's time to look for the ONE thing that was broken/cooked, or out of adjustment that caused the operator the retire the game waaaaaay back then. Sometimes that can be quite the treasure hunt." "Usually after a little cleaning, lube, a few electrical shocks and some swearing the old EM's spring back to life pretty well." Both Mark and Ken (and anyone that collects EM games) agree that the worst thing for EM games is to sit for long periods of time without use. Once these games are playing again, they can keep going for a long time.

One of the most integral mechanical pieces on the main bottom board is the "Score Motor". Ken explained that it basically scores things in multiples of 5's or 3's and is also used in the reset process, whether for drop targets, new game or bonus count downs.
Here's a crappy low-res video just for some blog variety to show the mech in motion.

Mark and Ken got both games running in less than an hour and then we spent some time brainstorming some ideas for the playfield and the possibilities of what may or may not be possible by adding a feature to the game.
This is proving to be a more complicated process than anticipated and we are still in the process of getting a better understanding of what could work for the game and help push the former CC design into a different layout with a similar rule set or scoring configuration. We want to be able to provide a more unique game play experience from the original Continental Cafe layout, but we also want to finish this project, as promised, in 2010.

All in all it was a great day...we got a lot accomplished (we being Mark and Ken), Chris learned a bit more about EM games, Dennis stood around in amazement, I took pictures, and Ken got to see some of the brainstorming techniques that Dennis, Mark, and I haven't done together since 1996. (Ken actually got to hear me speak in tounges when I disagreed with one of Dennis' suggestions - but Dennis is used to that.)
And one more crappy low-res video for your entertainment.

Next time we'll preview the wonderful world of color.

All art, sketches, or photos related directly to "Whizbang Pinball" or "Whoa Nellie (Brand) Big Juicy Melons" or "Whoa Nellie (Brand) Sweet Juicy Melons" are TM and Copyright 2009 WhizBang Pinball, Greg Freres, and Dennis Nordman.

Photos on this post provided by G.Freres, M. Weyna, and Nicholas Weyna


  1. Finally you have someone competent working on the project (Mark) ... kidding of course. Nice to see some solid EM progress. Greg: if you are thinking of a career as a video director then ... well ... just stick with the art :-)

  2. uh, guys, you're just kidding about that "unidentified woman" in that Elvira promo shot and realize that that's Elvira herself without all the hair and makeup, right? :)